John and David were brothers, two young men who worshipped in my parish in England. They had not been baptized as babies, but now felt the time was right. They asked me if I could baptize them by total immersion. So, on a beautiful summer’s day we and their family and friends gathered around a swimming pool. Having taken advice from the local Baptist minister, I climbed down into the water, in blue jeans and an alb, and baptized them.
It left a powerful impression on me. Baptism inside a church at the font is always a moving experience, with the water symbolizing washing, cleansing, thirst quenching, reviving. But when those two young men were plunged down beneath the deep water scared, and then came up again – there was a real sense of dying – and rising again. I had never before felt so powerfully how in our baptism we share in the death of Jesus, and also share in his resurrection. I remember blessing the waters with the moving prayer from the English prayer book: “We thank you Lord, that through the deep waters of death, you brought your Son, and raised him to life in triumph.”
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, water, especially deep water – lakes, rivers, was something to be feared: it represented chaos and death. In the Book of Genesis, when God created the world he created it from a dark, formless void, covered with deep dark waters. Out of these waters of chaos, God brought forth creation, in the form of dry land. Then later, when God was sorry that he’d ever created humankind, he reversed the process: God caused a great flood, and only Noah and his family were left to witness this terrible return of creation to watery chaos.
And when, in the Book of Exodus, God calls Moses to lead the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the Promised Land, the greatest sign of God’s desire and power to save was the parting of the waters of the Red Sea, to reveal the dry land – and then, that chilling return of the towering walls of water, to plunge Pharaoh’s army into a watery grave.
Rivers, lakes, seas, were not friendly images for the Israelites: rather, they threatened chaos and death. We who are brought up on Romantic Wordsworthian pastoral images of beautiful lakes and rivers, forget that being a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee was not at all romantic, but an occupation fraught with anxiety – sailing on a very dangerous lake where storms could arise without warning, and where drownings were common.
And so the image of God parting the waters of the Red Sea, and letting the Israelites cross over on dry land, remains an archetypal and potent image of God’s power to save. It is an image which would be fundamental in the Hebrew people’s developing understanding of God, because this water, which was usually seen as dangerous, here becomes nothing less than a gateway, a crossing over to life.
And it is this developing theological understanding which lies behind the story which we have just read from the Book of Joshua.(Josh 3:7-17) Moses has indeed led God’s people across the Red Sea, and through the wilderness. He sees the Promised Land, but God says, “You will not cross over,” and he dies on the verge of Jordan. It is Joshua whom God appoints as his successor. God says to Joshua, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them.” Easier said than done! The waters of the Jordan were very deep. And because it was harvest time, the water was especially deep, overflowing all its banks, and fast flowing.
And so it was that the priests, bearing the ark of the covenant, waded into the water. As soon as the soles of their feet rested in the waters of the Jordan, the waters stopped flowing and were wholly cut off. And the people crossed over the Jordan on dry ground, into the Promised Land.
It’s a great image – crossing over from death to life – but what is particularly significant is the role of the priests. The priests’ role is to help God’s people cross over from death to life. But they can only fulfill their sacred task if they are prepared to get their feet wet! And that is precisely what they do not do in our Gospel reading today. Matthew 23 is a terrible indictment of religious leaders who have abdicated their sacred task of helping others cross over from death to life, and who will not get their feet wet!
O yes, they sit on Moses’ seat, but instead of offering the way to life, they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They are no longer servants, going before God’s people, walking ahead of the people into the deep waters, showing them how to cross over to life. Instead they are content to weigh others down, only to see them sink beneath the overwhelming waters of death.
No wonder Jesus is so harsh in his condemnation of them. In their blindness they could not see that Jesus, like Joshua before him, had been divinely appointed by God to lead God’s people from death to life. Just as Joshua enabled God’s people to cross over, through the deep waters of the Jordan into the Promised Land, so Jesus, by his death and resurrection, would enable us to cross over the deep waters of death, into eternal life. Jesus, our great high priest, like those priests of Joshua, walked ahead of his people into the waters of death. Not only did Jesus get his feet wet, but plunged down into the deepest and darkest place – as if to assure us that there is no place to which we can sink, however dark, however chaotic, however fearful, which is beyond the saving love of God.
“If I make the grave my bed, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand hold me fast.”(Ps 139:7-9)
“Fear not, says the Lord, for I have redeemed you. When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”(Isaiah 43)
We who have been baptized have this wonderful assurance, that in the waters of baptism we have died with Christ, but also been raised with Christ. We have passed over from death to life. Alleluia! That is the Paschal mystery, which is at the heart of our faith and our life. It is this which we celebrate at Easter, and on every Sunday – the day of Resurrection.
But this dying and rising, this crossing over from death to life which happens at baptism, is not a one-off thing – but it is to be our daily vesture as Christians. We are called every day to die to sin and death, to be crucified with Christ, and rise again to new life. But that means “we have to get our feet wet.” We have to walk out into the deep waters – into what we most fear, trusting that God will not abandon us, but rather longs to redeem us. That place of fear will be the very locus of our salvation.
I wonder if there is something in your own life now which confronts you, or challenges you, or attracts you, but which you deeply fear. How can I go into those deep waters? It could kill me. Maybe it will. But maybe unless you die you cannot live.
At this Eucharist this morning, we celebrate the Paschal mystery. “Behold we have passed from death to life.” So perhaps God’s challenge to us today is to truly live that life that Christ has won for us. Don’t live your life in the shallows. You cannot find peace by not living life. Get your feet wet. Walk out into the deep waters of the unknown – but filled with faith and trust that God will meet you there in Christ, and that he will guide you, and carry you when you fall, that he has promised that he will lead you across dry land, and land you safe on Canaan’s side.
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